The Score
The Score

USA, 2001. Rated R. 123 minutes.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, Jamie Harrold
Writer: Daniel E. Taylor and Kario Salem (story); Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith (screenplay)
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematographer: Rob Hahn
Producers: Gary Foster, Lee Rich
Director: Frank Oz


Grade: B- Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry

E dward Norton has said in interviews that he took the job in The Score for the poster. Hell, I want a copy of the poster! Not since the first side-by-side pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat has a cast elicited such eagerness in acting geeks. Brando. De Niro. Norton. The most intense actors of their respective generations (okay, Norton may be dueling with Del Toro for the mantle of his generation, but he's still way up there) all onscreen together. It is the stuff of which acting dreams are made. There are even two scenes wherein they face off like some three-headed Stanislavsy monster, and somewhere, the dead Russian father of the "method" is no doubt cackling like Dr. Frankenstein-"Give my creation LIFE!!!"-though in a very naturalistic way, of course.

Given all that, it's almost redundant to say the acting in The Score is virtuoso. What's most impressive about its brilliance is that it is real and effective, which, of course, is the point. The problem is that it isn't as effective as it could be, because it's difficult to forget that one is witnessing this meeting of the masters and simply be absorbed by the film. Though it's not the fault of the actors, the film is a bit too straightforward to allow the audience to stop going "wow, look at Brando and De Niro and Norton all up there acting their asses off." It's not because you "see" them acting--except when you are supposed to, in Norton's case, but then, what is beneath that intentional display of technique is so genuine that you realize again how supple his skill truly is--but because the story, while engaging, isn't strong enough to outshine the actors.

The Score is a classic heist story in every sense of the word. Norton and De NiroNick (De Niro) is a masterful professional thief who thinks he's pulled his last job. Max (Brando) is his eccentric, refined agent/fence who wants him to pull off one more big score. Jackie (Norton) is the young hotshot with the cover to get the job done. Connect the dots and there you have your heist film. If this movie were populated by lesser lights, it would receive little notice and less praise.

Oh, did I mention that Angela Bassett is in the movie, too? No? That's because they forgot they hired an actress with the mettle to stand up to these big boys, and completely underused her in a thankless, typical, "girlfriend" role. I guess she took the job for the poster, too.

I suppose I'm not being entirely fair to The Score. There are good things about it, aside from the cast. It is a true grown-up movie. It doesn't fill in every blank and spill every detail. While the audience isn't exactly surprised by anything, there are gaps left to be filled and some reason to be curious about the mechanics of the heist. Unfortunately, the story never takes over from the primary attraction of the actors.

The best thing about The Score is Marlon Brando. For the first time in years, he inhabits a role that is not gross self-parody or outlandish exaggeration. This is the sort of role he could have been doing masterfully in the past 20 years, instead of his buffoonish turns in such dreck as The Island of Dr. Moreau and that Columbus movie no one saw. As disappointing as the flimsiness of Bassett's role is, the quantity of screen time Brando has is delightful. Particularly enjoyable is a nicely staged conversation between him and De Niro by a subterranean swimming pool. This location was positively genius, dank and humid, with the built-in tension of exposed wires suspending a light bulb that threatens to fall at any moment and fry two of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen.
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Robert De Niro plays another in his string of understated professional criminals, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders and just trying to eke out one last go-round to secure his future. It should be old, but it isn't. There's clearly some parallel between the role and De Niro's position in the world of acting. He's the best; there's not much he hasn't done; now he's simply feathering the nest for his old age. De Niro took this movie for the $15-million paycheck-perhaps he doesn't much care about posters. That's not to malign his performance. In fact, of the three, De Niro seems the easiest to buy in his role. He's the only one who makes one forget that he's an Acting God, perhaps because he is so understated and has done this sort of character so many times before. For whatever reason, it works. I just hope there are more tour-de-force performances in De Niro's future and that he himself isn't planning to bow out after one last big score.

Edward Norton has the showiest role. His performance isn't seamless, but then it isn't meant to be. Jackie's cover story (which he blows for the audience and for Nick in his first scene) is that he's a developmentally disabled janitor in the Customs House where the object of desire resides. Much has been made that there are similarities to Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man performance in Jackie's (and thus, Norton's) charade. While that may be, it is more a function of the "Brian" cover being an act, and of the essential similarities in our perception of the mentally handicapped, than it is an homage on Norton's part to Hoffman's Academy Award-winning role. We've seen Norton's impersonation of Rain Man in Keeping the Faith, and this isn't it. Such spurious quibbles aside, Norton's character is an engaging one, taken a few steps beyond the cliché. Jackie is smart enough to know that he needs to learn from Nick and cocky enough to demand to be treated as, if not an equal, at least a professional.

It's been widely acknowledged that this film started shooting without a locked script. No fewer than five people are credited with some writing involvement, and that doesn't even include Norton, who has admitted that he tinkered with the script a bit (as he is, reportedly, wont to do). As the old saw goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. While this stew isn't exactly rank, it isn't as tasty a concoction as one might hope. When it comes right down to it, though, most people will be coming to The Score for the main ingredients. Director Frank Oz deserves credit for realizing that when you are serving up a triple helping of filet mignon, it's best to keep the seasoning light.

Review © July 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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